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Manuscript Reveals Battle Between Greeks and Goths at Thermopylae

Thermopylae gotsh greeks battle war
The site of Thermopylae. Credit: Fkerasar/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

An ancient manuscript that has recently come to light indicates that in 262 AD there was another battle at Thermopylae that essentially saved Greece from the Goths.

In 2007, Jana Grusková, PhD, of Masaryk University, discovered a manuscript fragment containing a piece of lost ancient Greek history.

The fragments, which date back to the 13th century, went unnoticed for centuries because the pages were palimpsests, or manuscripts where the original writing was washed or scraped away in order to write something new on the same page.

Technology now enables historians to read the fragments that pertain to a third century AD text, which describes a battle at the Thermopylae mountain pass, the place of the famous battle where Leonidas and his brave 300 forces fought against the mighty Persian army.

Battle occurred during period of Germanic invasions of Roman territory

The fragments are from a time period where there are few trustworthy historical sources—the decades following the beginning of the Germanic invasions of Roman territory in 238 AD.

The palimpsest fragments appear to be lost passages from a third-century historical work detailing wars between Rome and the Goths, a Germanic people known as the Scythica.

The author of this work, moreover, is seen to be Athenian historian Publius Herennius Dexippus, a reliable source according to today’s historians.

The fragment concerning the battle at Thermopylae details events that took place in 254 or 262 AD, according to a paper in the Journal of Roman Studies. The exact dating of the battle is unclear and scholars are still debating that issue. But the fragment, located in the Austrian National Library, clearly lays out the main players in the battle and how it was in some ways a reenactment of the original Battle of Thermopylae.

The fragment records that an army of Goths was making its way through Thrace and Macedonia, plundering the countryside of valuables as they went. However, when they attempted to pillage the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, Thessalonica, (modern-day Thessaloniki), they were driven away.

The Goths then set their sights for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the many gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries, according to Dexippus.

Greeks took on Goths at Thermopylae

The Greeks, however, caught wind of the plan, and chose to stop the Goths in the access point to Athens from the north—the mountain pass of Thermopylae. Fighting under Marianus, the Roman proconsul of Achaea, alongside the Athenian Philostratus, they stood where Leonidas had stood centuries before, at the “Hot Gates.”

“Some carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste,” reads the fragment.

The Greek army was located on the site of one of the most famous battles in history, so the clever generals used this to their advantage: “It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valor so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up…”

The fragment records part of the speech given by Marianus, the Roman leader of the Greek army:

“O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state…”

“So perhaps it may be good fortune,” reads the writing on the fragment, “in accordance with the daimonion [heavenly power], that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past).”

According to historians, the Goths were turned back by Marianus and his army. “Thermopylae once more saved Athens from an even darker fate,” the story concludes.

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